understanding email chain letters

the other day i received an email from a friend. it started with the ominous “please read and pass on”. immediately my antennae went up; in my experience, 95% of such emails turn out to be hoaxes.

the friend of mine who passed the email on to me is an ex teacher, has an excellent education, and is well read. why, i wondered, did he fall for this hoax?

here are a few excerpts of that particular chain letter:

Outrage in South Africa … Last week a 3 year old girl was beaten and raped … The man responsible was released … If you are too busy to read this then … The Government is planning to close the child protection unit and this is a petition against it … You may have already heard that there’s a myth in South Africa that
having sex with a virgin will cure AIDS … Recently in Cape Town, a 9-month-old baby was raped by 6 men. Please think about that for a moment … Please don’t be complacent, do something … You can make a difference …

who in their right mind would not be outraged against something horrible like this? what feeling person would just be complacent and yawn and say, “naw, i’m too busy”? who among the well educated does not want to stop and think and bust awful myths like the one discussed in this letter? who wouldn’t want to make a difference here?

feelings like the outrage and compassion that are elicited by this letter create a tension in our emotional make-up. our first reaction is to break that tension. this urge to break that tension, to re-establish our emotional balance, drives us to run to the nearest exit, so to say.

and lo! here it is! we are outraged and feel compassionate and need to do something about it and right here, we can do something! we can sign a petition, send on the email, just with a few keystrokes or clicks and right away, we can regain our emotional equilibrium and feel better. phew.

this explains why an otherwise very rational person can easily fall prey to such chain letters.

having seen many such letters, and having made it one of my missions to dispel urban myths, my personal outrage went in another direction. i was irritated by the letter’s play on people’s noble emotions, and by its use of very real problems to … well, i don’t even know what the aim of the letter is.

child rape does happen in south africa (and in other parts of the world, including canada), and we do need to do something about it. but, for heaven’s sake, let’s not just run to the nearest exit to rid ourselves of uncomfortable feelings, let’s stop and think.

my personal solution to this was to talk to an acquaintance from south africa and ask him to give me some background on charities that work. he put me in contact with someone here in vancouver who is involved with education without borders.

i chose to donate there, through canada helps. other possibilities are nelson mandela’s children’s fund or world vision.

you can find more information on this particular petition (and hoax) here and on internet petitions in general here.

if you want to learn more about internet urban legends and hoaxes, here are a few good sites:

university of california at berkeley urban legends site
evaluating internet information
isabella mori
counselling in vancouver

23 thoughts on “understanding email chain letters

  1. Erin

    Ya know this is a bunch of BS. I never really read chain letters, but after reading this I will always read them. I really need to know what is the point in raping little children???? A three year old being raped and them letting the guy go. And the 9 month old baby. I’m sorry, but my opinion EVERYBODY WHO RAPES AND KILLS LITTLE CHILDREN AUGHT TO BE DEAD THEMSELVES. OR SOMEBODY NEEDS TO DO THE SAME THING TO THEM THAT THEY DID TO THE CHILDREN. There is no point in hurting children. I have a 14 month old and if she ever got hurt like that I would seriously be hurting somebody, and I would make sure they would be in jail for quite a long time…………..

  2. admin

    hi erin, and thanks for your comment.

    it’s obvious that you are very concerned about child abuse. we all need to be concerned about child abuse.

    i’m sorry if i was not clear in my post, so i will make a few points here:

    the letter i mentioned was a HOAX – the facts in it did not check out.

    the letter contained a petition, asking people to sign in protest against the alleged crimes. the email address to whom the petition was to be sent does not lead anywhere, so the petition just vanishes somewhere in cyberspace.

    of course we all need to be concerned with horrible things like child abuse. however, if we sign petitions for something that we don’t really know if it’s true, we end up thinking that we have done something useful. if we REALLY want to make a difference, one of the things we can do is donate money to a charity that has PROVEN that it deals with the things we are concerned about.

    again, please check out the links in the post. it will clarify things further.


  3. Pingback: breaking the chains of chain letters » change therapy - isabella mori

  4. Expat Brat

    I fell for this one! I just sent that email out to many on my email list, and a friend mailed back pointing I to your site.

    Now I feel silly.

    You are right, it is shocking. AIDS is a huge problem and the myth sounds like perhaps it could be a real myth. The email made me act, and I hardly ever forward jokes etc.


  5. Prasad

    Thanks for this website and the work that went behind it. To me, responding to email petitions always seemed pointless but some of the issues in those emails were alarming, like this baby rape email. Reading your posting has put my mind to rest. Thanks again.

  6. Serena Lambre

    Thank you for your useful links. You are right. It is far better to actually do something rather than just hit ‘Send’ and feel a warm glow of satisfaction.

    Whether the actual incident in the letter was true or not, the event mentioned does happen. I have spoken to several people who work with children in Africa and they have confirmed that the myth of sleeping with virgins to cure AIDS is still prevelant. So to Expat Brat I would say, don’t feel silly.

    Unfortunately I am incredibly cynical, and as I see I am not the only one who received your website as a response to sending out the chain-mail, I am now wondering if it was in fact you started the hoax chain letter in an aim to self publicise. (I told you I was cynical!) Have you any other idea why such a letter would start?

    Or does anyone out there know the first person on the list?

    All the best.


  7. Nancy

    Isabella – great post. If more and more of us came up with a Standard Operating Procedure when we received these (eg. 1. check to see if it’s a hoax at websites you listed and others 2. sent the chain back to the sender, noting our findings, and asked them to notify everyone they told, plus the person who sent it (hmmm… what if it could reach all the way back to the perpetrator??) 3. choose a related charity and donate even $1 there could be a good ripple effect.

  8. LUNNA


  9. Leeann K

    Thank you for your insight about “”doing something like passing on chain letters to relieve outrage, and then really accomplishing nothing”. I am curious how to research letters. Honestly I read the letter, and resisted my temptation to send it to others, instead I copied the text of the letter to Google to see if it was a hoax.

    Again, my question is, other than doing what I did with this letter, how does one investigate hoaxes?

  10. isabella mori

    leeann, that’s similar to what i do. i take a little snippet from the letter that seems to best identify it, put it in quotation marks add the word “hoax” and see what google coughs up. in about 95% of the cases, i immediately get something from snopes or urban legends, and in 95% of THOSE cases, it turns out the letter was a hoax.

  11. Ellen H

    Hi, i’ve received several hoaxes and always hesitate. Decided not to forward cos just as logical, the incident has no date stated. if contact details are provided, i would call. thus, i do agreed if we wanted to prove we care, correct! charity does help. thanks.

  12. sharlene

    I used to be a blind believer but now check all chain letters-and it is great to see there are actually other people around who take the time to search for the truth. How awesome that you have put actual links to organizations that an help-I have emailed my chain letter friends with these links instead.



  13. isabella mori

    ellen and sharlene, thanks for your comments.

    ellen, what you say about no date being stated – that’s a good clue!

    sharlene – it’s great to hear that you’ve gone from “blind believer” to checking these things out first.

  14. Chazz, buddhist punk

    the thing that struck a chord with my more logical side was: if true, how does petitioning a gov’t via email really help? why would a gov’t that does not care for its own people care what the global community thinks?

    i often go to urban legends sites to check out email petitions. and you are right, 95% of these are a total hoax and waste of time. i fell for the “movie on jesus as a gay man” email hoax, then i felt like an idiot because it wasn’t true.

  15. forfyv

    I have been online since the late 70’s, (yes that is correct, and yes there was no internet in the late 70’s).
    I have seen this phenomenon since the internet began, and to be honest, it was happening via email, when ARPAnet was the network everyone used. What really amazed me was that the majority of users back then were actually REALLY smart people, and even THEY fell victim to the “push a button to feel better” syndrome. That’s what it is. Sometimes I wish I had a button that could give a pert little zap to everyone who sent me a silly chain mail, to wake them up and scurry them to a search engine to seek the truth. However I have many acquaintances who are repeat offenders, I’m afraid I would have to find out how to increase the voltage, and perhaps apply some Darwinian common sense. LOL.

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